On February 6, Israel elected its first settler prime minister. Premier-elect Ariel Sharon, who has given his negotiators ten days to forge a “national unity” government with Labor, maintains an official residence in Old Jerusalem’s Muslim Quarter. In a landslide victory, Sharon received 62.5 percent of the vote, forcing Ehud Barak to resign from Labor’s leadership. Barak could not overcome the contradictions inherent in his governing strategy of wooing the left with bold but seriously flawed “peace plans,” while simultaneously reassuring the center by ordering the Israel Defense Forces (IDF) to violently crush the ongoing Palestinian uprising in the Occupied Territories. Under Sharon, whose constituency opposes any movement at all on key issues of borders, settlements, refugees and Jerusalem, the contradictions of Israel’s occupation of Palestinian lands will become sharper. The Clinton “bridging proposals” of December 2000 and the eleventh-hour round of talks at Taba last month were attempts to revive the skewed Oslo “peace process” which the Palestinian street has so clearly rejected. Barak’s defeat may signal the death of the Oslo framework, and the gradual consolidation of today’s creeping apartheid in the West Bank and Gaza.

Campaign Ironies

For the first time in 2001, Israelis voted in a direct election for prime minister without a parallel parliamentary election. The resulting, highly personalized campaign produced strange, Orwellian images. Sharon, the notorious general and invader of Lebanon, who has supported none of the peace plans or accords in Israel’s history, was portrayed on billboards, TV ads, bumper stickers and direct mail as “a leader for peace.” The Likud slogan repeated during the early days of the intifada, “Let the IDF win,” metamorphosed during the campaign into “Only Sharon will bring peace.” Sharon’s TV ads showed him as both a war hero and a gentle grandfather, hugging little children and walking in blooming fields, accompanied by soft violins. The designers of Barak’s campaign tried hard to uncover the “real Sharon”—drawing attention to his role in the disastrous Lebanon war, including the massacre of hundreds of Palestinian civilians at Sabra and Shatila—but with little apparent success.

Since November, polls showed Sharon commanding a huge lead over Barak. But the Likud leader’s impressive electoral victory was far from democratic. Only 59 percent of the electorate—the lowest turnout in Israeli history—participated in the election. Three percent of those voters cast invalid blank ballots in protest, meaning that Sharon received the support of only some 35 percent of eligible voters. Due to a widespread election boycott, only 18 percent of the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel cast a vote, with extremely low participation in most non-Druze localities.

Significantly, despite the focus of these elections for the future of the Occupied Territories, the three million Palestinians residing under the direct or indirect control of the Israeli government do not have the right to vote. At the same time, the nearly 400,000 Jewish settlers living in the same areas are given full voting rights. Highlighting this irony were pictures on national TV of Judge Michael Kheshin, chair of the Israeli elections committee, delivering ballot boxes to a West Bank settlement in an armored vehicle, and commenting for the cameras: “This is a day of celebration for our democracy.”

The Barak Non-Vote

Barak lost so badly because all three of the constituencies that supported him in 1999—Palestinian citizens of Israel, the Jewish left and the political center—have been gravely disappointed by his premiership. His difficulties in office illustrate the deep crisis of the Israeli state, which portrays itself as democratic and enlightened while maintaining violent colonial control of the Palestinians.

Twenty months ago, Barak received 95 percent of the Palestinian vote. But he never negotiated with Arab leaders about forming a coalition, nor did he share any significant decision-making with the Arab parties. Palestinian citizens perceived his insistence on being “elected by a Jewish majority” as patronizing and racist. Further, the sustained violent response of the Barak government to the current intifada, and the violent police reaction to October’s mass demonstrations in Palestinian towns, in which 13 Palestinian citizens (and one Jew) were killed, angered the Arabs to the point of vowing never to vote for Barak.

By staying away from the polls, or casting a blank ballot, Israel’s Palestinian Arab citizens displayed an increasingly clear agenda of a national minority in conflict with the state. Some even called it “the independence day of the Arabs in Israel.” Clearly, no left-wing candidate can now take the Arab vote for granted. Palestinians in Israel also showed independence from figures in the Palestinian national movement, like Yasser Abed Rabbo and Nayef Hawatmeh, who called for supporting Barak.

But the boycott move also has its hazards, not least the assistance of Sharon’s rise to power. On the day following the elections, political leaders from both left and right, such as Meretz leader Yossi Sarid and Likud’s Moshe Katzav, expressed their “deep resentment” of the Arab mass abstention. Sarid even claimed that boycotters “betrayed” the cause of peace. Such allegations may spell increasing tensions between Israel’s Palestinian and Jewish citizens, perhaps emboldening right-wing Jewish leaders to sharpen discriminatory policies against Arab citizens.

Barak lost many of his supporters from the political center, as a result of his persistent statements that Israeli-Palestinian reconciliation entails major compromises, far beyond the previous “red lines” of any Zionist party. These voters—the largest group that deserted him—bemoaned the “loss of sacred national values” such as a “united Jerusalem” and the “the irreparable decline” in Israel’s deterrence ability. Barak also lost votes among the center-left and sectors of the Jewish left, who were shocked by the outbreak of the second intifada. The Oslo accords of 1993, which have yet to be implemented, and the US-backed “peace process” allowed most Israelis to remain in a “Jewish bubble,” deaf and blind to the needs and aspirations of the Palestinians. Most Israelis were apathetic toward, or even supportive of, Israel’s closures of the West Bank and Gaza, land seizures and the ongoing construction of Jewish settlements and bypass roads. They simply didn’t see the intensifying frustration of the Palestinians at Israel’s refusal to implement the pledged withdrawal from most of the Occupied Territories.

For these center-left Israelis, there was no direct explanation for a rebellion under the Barak government, and they were horrified by scenes like the Ramallah “lynching” of two Israeli soldiers and the public executions of collaborators by the Palestinian Authority. Despite the obvious asymmetry of power on display throughout the intifada, this large slice of the Israeli electorate—who associated the flawed Oslo process with Israel’s willingness to compromise—lost their trust in Yasser Arafat and the Palestinians as “peace partners,” and hence decided to dump Barak. It is indicative of the crisis of the Israeli state that no government advancing toward peace (even in rhetoric only, as did Barak’s) has survived its term in office.

“National Unity”

On February 9 Barak, in the company of Labor leaders Shimon Peres and Avraham Burg, commenced negotiations with premier-elect Ariel Sharon over conditions for a coalition government for the third time since the intifada began. This time Sharon sets the terms. Sharon’s pursuit of Labor for a “national unity” government may be genuine. He wants to hinder a possible revival of Labor and the expected challenge from Binyamin Netanyahu in the general elections he would have to call if he were unable to form a government. “National unity”—which is fully endorsed by key actors like Shas and the Russian parties—is exclusively Jewish, needless to say, and hence is not likely to create conditions for regional stability.

Since Sharon has stated that he will govern with a narrow right-wing coalition if “national unity” talks fail, Labor may justify cooperation with Sharon as “saving Israel from an extreme right-wing government.” But doing so would invite a serious internal rift. Leading Labor personalities like Yossi Beilin and Yael Dayan are already plugging an agenda of building a social democratic party in opposition to “national unity,” in a putative confederation with secular Meretz and several Arab factions. In a “national unity” government, Labor figures who still dream of capturing Arab votes would sit side by side with Rehavam Ze’evi of Moledet, who has advocated “transferring” Palestinian citizens out of Israel.

Debating Strategies for Peace

The twin prospects of “national unity” or a right-wing government make little difference to the Palestinians. Both types of coalition will probably support Sharon’s moves to “strengthen Jerusalem,” consolidate the settlements and move toward “separation” from the Palestinians, on the basis of dividing the West Bank between Jews and Palestinians. Even if Sharon moves to evacuate small settlements, as may well happen, his “peace plan” will translate into an undeclared apartheid. The continuing guerrilla and civil resistance by Palestinians will probably not be sufficient to prevent unilateral implementation of Sharon’s plans, at least in the short term. In response, the Israeli and Palestinian peace camps will have to debate the relative merits of two main strategies.

They may work to reverse the deepening occupation and pursue a two-state solution, based on UN resolution 242 and the evacuation of settlements. This would include the implementation of the Palestinian right of return mainly within the sites of settlements evacuated by Israel. Alternatively, the peace camps may adopt a local and international campaign for equal Palestinian citizenship and political rights in a binational political framework. These strategies necessitate new and innovative forms of Jewish-Palestinian cooperation, and possibly the emergence of a new generation of leaders, working towards creating binational frameworks and reinstating the mutual trust fatally wounded in the brief but volatile Barak-Arafat period. Neither of these strategies promises to succeed in the near future, but given the current state of crisis and fluidity, almost any political future is possible in Israel/Palestine.

How to cite this article:

Oren Yiftachel "Israel Elects Sharon," Middle East Report Online, February 12, 2001.

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